This Whole World Is OM: Song, Soteriology, and the Emergence of the Sacred Syllable
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CitationMoore Gerety, Finnian McKean. 2015. This Whole World Is OM: Song, Soteriology, and the Emergence of the Sacred Syllable. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThis study explores the emergence of OM, the Sanskrit mantra and critically ubiquitous "sacred syllable" of South Asian religions. Although OM has remained in active practice in recitation, ritual, and meditation for the last three thousand years, and its importance in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions is widely acknowledged, the syllable's early development has received little attention from scholars. Drawing on the oldest textual corpus in South Asia, the Vedas, I survey one thousand years of OM's history, from 1000 BCE up through the start of the Common Era. By reconstructing ancient models of recitation and performance, I show that the signal characteristic of OM in the Vedas is its multiformity: with more than twenty archetypal uses in different liturgical contexts and a range of forms (oṃ, om̐, om, o), the syllable pervades the soundscape of sacrifice. I argue that music is integral to this history: more than any other group of specialists, Brahmin singers of liturgical song (sāmaveda) fostered OM's emergence by reflecting on the syllable's many and varied uses in Vedic ritual. Incorporating the syllable as the central feature of an innovative soteriology of song, these singer-theologians constructed OM as the apotheosis of sound and salvation. My study concludes that OM plays a crucial role in the development of South Asian religions during this period. As the foundations of South Asian religiosity shift, from the ritually oriented traditions of Vedism to the contemplative and renunciatory traditions of Classical Hinduism, OM serves as a sonic realization of the divine, a touchstone of Vedic authority, and a central feature of soteriological doctrines and practices.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:17467527
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